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Old web page contact etiquette

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Occasionally, total strangers send me legitimate (non-spam) email out of the blue.

This is not surprising, actually. If you've ever posted information about something on a relatively high-profile site, and your email address was associated with it in some direct or indirect way, then I suspect you've encountered this phenomenon too.

And I've posted a lot of stuff online over the years. Four years' worth of wordplay columns, perhaps a couple dozen citations at BoingBoing, five years of this journal, assorted postings on assorted forums and journals and publicly-archived mailing lists, a bunch of old discussions of VRML, and a bunch of files I wrote up during college that were subsequently posted online. Plus nonfiction at Strange Horizons and Clean Sheets, and erotica at Clean Sheets and Fishnet. And my long-neglected situation-puzzle pages. And assorted old Usenet postings from the '80s and early '90s. And a bunch of random pages on my own site. Among other things. And I've had the same email address for about ten years now.

So it's not surprising that I get email from strangers, about things that I posted online years ago.

What surprises me is that almost nobody who sends me such email follows what seems to me to be basic and obvious etiquette.

I think that there are several factors that contribute to this, such as: (1) they don't notice the date attached to what I posted; and (2) they don't realize that I've ever posted anything else. And (3) they're so caught up in whatever it is they're focused on that they don't realize someone else might not recognize the context of their message. Also, (4) they often don't really understand how the web works, and (5) they haven't figured out that if you're asking a stranger for a favor, it pays to be polite.

So I get emails with subject lines like (made-up example) "Frumious bandersnatch" and message bodies that say things like "Can you sell it to me?" or "You'd damn well better reconsider your position on ossuaries. That was a really flippant and offensive thing to say." And at first I think it's spam, but then something about it sounds vaguely familiar, and I do a web search and realize that five years ago, I posted a note on a forum somewhere that said "Hey, I hear there's a frumious bandersnatch ossuary on Oahu." And five minutes after I posted it, I forgot all about it, and haven't thought about it at all in five years, and even at the time, I didn't know anything about it beyond what I originally posted.

(Similarly, I occasionally get emails that simply say things like "Your page is broken!" Sadly, despite the sender's admirable intent, this is not a helpful or informative thing to say unless the message also provides more context.)

So, here's some advice for anyone who sees something online and wants to contact the person who put it there:

  • Look at the date. If there's no date (fooey on people who don't put dates on their postings), or if the date is more than a few months ago, assume that the person will have no idea what you're talking about.
  • Use a subject line that gives more information than just a random-sounding noun, especially since random-sounding noun subject lines usually indicate spam. "Trying to locate owner of frumious bandersnatch ossuary" is a much better subject line than "frumious bandersnatch" or "hello" or "frumband" or (also very common, and worst of all) no subject line at all.
  • In the very first line of your email, introduce yourself. "Hi--my name is Aloysius Korzybski."
  • Immediately after that, give some context, including a URL. "I saw your name on a page from 2002 on the Ossuaries R Us forum site, at www.ossuaries.example.com/frumious/oahu.html."
  • Explain why you're writing. "I've always wanted a bandersnatch ossuary of my own, so I wondered if the one you mentioned is for sale."
  • For bonus points, explain why you're writing even though there's probably no particularly good reason for you to be writing. "I realize that the ossuary you mentioned is owned by the State of Hawai'i, so you probably don't own it and probably aren't selling it. But I figured it couldn't hurt to ask if you know of any others that might be for sale."
  • Sign off politely. "Hope you don't mind my contacting you about this. Thanks for taking the time to read this note. Sincerely, Aloysius."
  • For huge bonus points, detect when the person has only provided a link to something that they don't actually have any connection to. In that case, don't write to the link-providing person at all. Instead, follow the link, and contact the appropriate person at the linked-to site rather than contacting the person who provided the link. (Note, for example, that BoingBoing has a practice of saying "Thanks, X!" to the person who supplied the item, who often has no direct connection with the item itself, so contacting X often doesn't do you any good.)

I guess the short form of that is: provide context, be polite, and be aware that the person you're contacting doesn't know you.

This message brought to you by the word "curmudgeon." The funny thing is, I do respond to almost all of the emails of this sort that I receive (although these days I often fail to respond to perfectly polite notes about situation puzzles and old wordplay columns, despite my best intentions), and I'm usually polite about it. But the politeness is usually masking irritation. Someone who wants to contact me can improve my day, and get a response that I'll actually be pleased to write, if they approach these things with a little more thought.

1 Comment

This sounds an awful lot like the occasional emails I get saying, "I loved your story!" I always feel like an ingrate when I reply, "Thanks. Which one?"

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